Improbable Visions and Damned Women: Two New Books on Art

Reviews by Fred Johnston

1. Eccentric Grace – Carlo Crivellie and his Mythic World
By Laurence Whittaker

Not for the first time, Laurence Whittaker, Head of Fine Art Studies at the University of Thomas Hall, Winterton, Nebraska, has devoted himself to the uncovering of an obscure work of art and, with a masterly stroke of detection, has unearthed a similarly obscure, though fascinating, artist. Eccentric Grace – Carlo Crivelli and His Mythic World (Thomas Hall Press, 287 pp; with illustrations: $32.00) is Whittaker’s attempt to redefine, through interpreting the societal background illustrated in Crivelli’s ‘Venus and Zachariah’, the life of the painter himself and the Venice in which he grew up and worked. By 1457, Crivelli – who, not shy, signed his adolescent sketches Crivellius – was apprenticed to Andreus Mantegna, who by that time was a contract painter, reasonably good at frescoes. Whittaker alleges that Crivelli paid a little more than ordinary homage to Mantegna’s illegitimate daughter, Annicella, and may have had a son by her: here, even the boundlessly imaginative Whittaker conjectures. At any rate, Mantegna fired him. Crivelli, broke and on the bottle, did odd job work touching up this and tinting that – notably a ‘Virgin and Child’ by Antonio Vivarini, now at the Vatican – and the strain brought him to wandering the filthy and feverish outskirts of his city. From these wanderings arose Crivelli’s grim Gothic style, a style inherited by his brother Vittorio: together, alleges Whittaker, they worked on the giant ‘Venus and Zachariah,’ now hanging in the Louvre. Whittaker asserts that ‘Zachariah’ is a self-portrait of Crivelli and points to the fight-smashed fat boxer’s nose. Through a dissection of the vast painting – larger than ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ - Whittaker outlines a rather prosy account of Crivelli’s Venice; a city prone to plague, where prostitution, by both sexes, was common social currency; where imaginative vice and carnival walked hand in hand. In such an atmosphere, and given the nature of the man, it’s hardly surprising that Crivelli’s best friend, the sculptor Bergolino, who gave us ‘Madonna and the Innocents’ (Prado, Madrid) was knifed to death in a male brothel. This event shaped the rest of Crivelli’s life; the brothers fell out over money, Crivelli sold the giant painting; wars came and went, the painting travelled, turning up in Toulouse in 1760, where the city magistrates - in the middle of a bakers’ riot - found their deliberations back-dropped by a painting – a gift of a merchant of considerable wealth named Barrau – which was so vast that there was no place in the city in which to house it where it did not lean forward at an angle! Crivelli would have loved it. His reputation lived on even to Ruskin’s time, when Ruskin describes his work, in a Manchester lecture in 1857, as “. . .the strongest genius in the most perfect obedience.” The story of Crivelli’s painting is, therefore, the story of how art, however out of its time, survives time and speaks to us; yet curiously eludes our efforts to know it and its origins. I was intrigued by the otherwise flat-paced story - until I recalled that Ruskin was speaking of Pietro de Medici, not of Crivelli, when he uttered his line of praise in Manchester. Even Whittaker can slip up. But it nonetheless true – Crivelli says so in a letter of Venetian viciousness to his old master – that the model for the ‘Venus’ of his co-painted work is none other than Annicella herself, noticeably pregnant whoever her lover was; perhaps proving that all art is a form of revenge, and nothing more. Fred Johnston

(Laurence Whittaker’s other books include Vermeer and the Rise of Neo-Concentrism (Notre Dame: 1987), and Francesco Mochi: Mussolini’s Artist (Thomas Hall – 2001). He divides his time between Nebraska and a summer cottage in Annascaul, Co. Kerry.)

Alchymie of the Heart
By Barbara Verwoerd

Barbara Verwoerd’s previous, some say seminal, work on Renaissance women poets, Alchymie of The Heart (Brenaton Press, University of Southern California) mentions the enigmatic Lucia della Fastiglione, mistress of Ludovico ‘Il Moro,’ one of whose many women da Vinci painted. Lucia died weirdly, but fittingly, during the French invasion of Milan in 1499 – no faint heart she, she went to battle in man’s armour, though forgot to tie up her hair, which caught in the mechanism of a dreadful war-machine, a canamora, which hurled her through the air and into the French army where, we may assume, she did no damage at all. Worthy of a book to herself, she finally has one, in Verwoerd’s wonderful, though arguably overly-long, Lust and Magic – Musings of a Renaissance Lady (Brenaton, Univ. of Southern California. 488pp; illustrated. $43.00). Penguin, I’m informed, will bring out the paperback later this year. Born in Milan in 1444, the daughter of a reasonably well-off magistrate, Lucia was an only child. In a man’s world, she set out early to make her mark; at eighteen, she read her poems out loud in the Friday market, to the horror of her bourgeois parents. She was, by all accounts, plumply beautiful and for years it was argued that she might have been the model for Mona Lisa. Not so; Lucia couldn’t sit still long enough for portraits. She wrote libidinous, sexual poetry (“Your knife, my love/Moistened to its tip/By the ripe sharpening/Of my salted lip”) and had lovers, one of whom, the rake and faux-alchemist, Ferdinand Sforza, brother of Il Moro, declared to her that he could create a potion “much too my exciting” that would provide her with prolongations of “that bliss of which the blessed fallen angels sing”. Lucia wrote everything down, even what Ferdinand was like in bed. His potion didn’t, by all accounts, work. Like a dream of a woman, she appeared in the eyes of proper Milanese men as both delicious and dreadful; she fulfilled their fantasies and caused them to squabble over her. In short, she enjoyed herself immensely, drank with the best of them, lived off her father’s reputation and his money, and invented, towards the end of her brief life, a mechanical dildo, no less, of wood and ermine, which can be seen in the flesh, so to speak, at the University Library of Milan. She engaged in politics – the Church watched her carefully. When she took to the field against the French, she was one step ahead of the Inquisition. Lucia della Fastiglione is a symbol, as Verwoerd points out and examines, of the Renaissance itself; a turning of consciousness, a throwing off of old ideas; some of which, he might have argued further, gave rise to new interpretations of the Feminine in Art. Would the buxom warrior queens of some stylised mytho-painting have been possible without the memory, at least, of Lucia? Da Vinci’s drawing of her face illustrated here – upon her head, a coiled serpent – is a skittish but loving cartoon. Clearly he admired her. He has put upon her lips a smile both lascivious and knowing; as if Lucia, coquettish and damned, still had the power, a sketch of herself, to seduce, while remaining skittishly unattainable.

(Barbara Verwoerd is an Art journalist and writer. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic and Trinity - Journal of the Fine Arts Association of America. She lives near Malibu, California with her husband, the sculptor, Maro Bengen.)

(Entry by Fred Johnston)